During a recent conversation with a young man studying mathematics at university I heard him say his chosen subject was the language of measurement and that anything can be measured, in the scientific realm at least. I contradicted the thought, saying that what makes us human is immeasurable. This he acknowledged with the proviso that his understanding of measurement left him believing the individual to be a very small part of a patently enormous universe.
I find this latter remark strange yet common, especially in those who focus their attentions on the so-called social sciences. For sociologists, the individual barely exists, in and of himself, and is relevant only as a particle controlled by the nebulous blob that gives their subject its name. For economists, the individual is but a unit, conceivable for his predictable responses to supply and demand but otherwise irrelevant. When irrational, the individual is uninteresting. For anthropologists, all of us are products of our past, unable to change except in ways determined by the environment in which we and our ancestors have been placed. To the political scientist, he is but a member of a class, his thoughts, his actions, his values, not to mention his wealth, granted him through his relative position in a power-mandated hierarchy. I could go on, but think the point sufficiently made—the individual, that thing we know as self, falls outside the measurable except when seen as part of something conceivably sizeable. Then he is measurable. My interlocutor agreed with my adumbrations, stating that what he meant by measurable applied to the physical universe—that part made up of the 118 known elements, 94 of which occur on earth—with time and space added in.
I moved the conversation on to make the point that in the known universe, the individual is the only collection of said elements able to make the statement, “shit, look at all this; and I’m here to conceive it!” I state that fact in the vernacular because anybody with conscious ability could, no should, be capable of thinking it. Education, with its requirement to learn an obfuscating argot, is not essential; the individual making the statement needs only to be conscious, nothing more.
As far as we know, we are the only self-conscious conglomeration of elements to exist in the universe and the scientific method dictates that until disproven, this hypothesis stands. Those versed in probability may well argue that the universe, given its size, provides a high degree of possibility that other life-forms have evolved to reach, or exceeded, our own level of consciousness, but I remain unconvinced. It was a pretty chancy thing our evolving to this level. Besides, whatever the probability other conscious creatures do exist, we’ll never know them. Time and space limits our conscious existence to such an extent that they could be not be our neighbors even if at some point, somewhere, they did/do/will exist. We are on our own.
So we are here, existent in the universe, unique for our consciousness. So what? Well, that so is a lot. Think of our solar system. It is huge. And yet its outer limits—Pluto’s orbit (or Neptune’s) that marks the outer-most boundary of it constitutes only a tiny part of our galaxy which itself is only one of countless (my interlocutor disputed this obtuse number) galaxies that make up the universe. In all that knowable space, only we have consciousness, only we know indubitably that the universe exists. What is not us is just stuff made up of the same elements that, if we believe in Big Bang, make up the rest of the unconscious and unknowing universe. Our unique knowledge of this, until proven otherwise, is the most important thing in the universe.
And we are not small because of this knowledge; we are enormous. If there is an overriding value higher than all others in the universe, surely it is the realization that the whole darn thing is here? Until recently, only gods knew of the nature of our universe’s existence. We could see it, to a limited extent, but not know it, not like now. Now we can look deep into it and wonder (admittedly, to a limited extent, but then we have just started trying) more widely at its existence. It looks good but it is not like us. It doesn’t know itself or us. Only we know this and that is big.
This knowledge, previously ascribed to gods exclusively but clearly apparent in all of us, is the starting point in all our thinking.
Our knowledge of the universe and what it holds, is collectively gained but individually realized. Only individuals think on this subject and marvel at its relevance. When somebody asks, what’s the meaning of life, the only answer is, make of it what you will, it’s up to you. You can think of it as incomprehensible, absurd, an inconvenient burden best left for others to contemplate but that won’t help you come up with answers and add to your understanding. And what a waste such conclusions would be! What a shame! What an abnegation of one’s nature to deduce such conclusions when so much more is available. True, we all have different talents and aptitudes; few of us have Aristotle’s, Newton’s, Beethoven’s or any other such genius’ abilities to thrust mankind’s understanding of the universe forward, but that shouldn’t deter us. It didn’t stop them from thinking on the subjects at hand, thank goodness. And what they left us was beneficial, placing us further ahead in the quest for what comprehension means.
Start with appreciation. This ability of ours is no mean thing, so why the self-loathing? If individuals could be better, or have done better, why denigrate them as simply flawed when they are clearly capable of improvement? Improvement? How is that measured? Well, if cognition of the existence of the universe is what sets us apart, then knowing more of our it, and knowing it better, is an improvement. Understanding how we are part of the whole yet distinctly unique for that knowledge is an improvement, by any measure. We don’t have to be perfect, just capable of better.
The universe is not perfect; it is what it is, expanding and evolving, and each of us is part of it—its brain. Consciousness is not a sin, but believing it to be so corrodes our self-esteem and distorts our point of view, leading us to untrue assumptions. We don’t need that; it doesn’t help. What we need to do is to make sense of it.
Appreciating our place in the universe is an important first step, but an insufficient one. Just as measurement is not knowing, recognition is not understanding. We need to make sense of this universe of which we are a momentous part because to do otherwise is to contradict our very essence. It is not easy. Our essence—self-consciousness and the capacity to understand—makes us the most complex thing in the universe, distinct from both the animate and inanimate. The scientific methods we employ to further our understanding of the nature of that which is not conscious, tell us only so much about ourselves. The same is true of biology. Biology can teach us how our bodies work, how our brains function mechanically but not how we think, how we reason and how we conceptualize. It is wrong to deny (as the humanities and social sciences do) the essence of the individual mind by placing him in an inanimate group to make him measurable, understandable, predictable as the social sciences invariably try to do. This method takes us in the wrong direction by denying the existence of individual consciousness as a distinct and valuable attribute with conceptualization, through the correct application of reason, as its methodology.
And of the right direction, we can say this. The individual must adopt values to guide him in his understanding and pursuit of truth. First and foremost is the value of individual thought and life—how precious it is, how unique it is. Just as important is the individual’s freedom to think and act in a way that enhances his life in order that he can pursue his understanding of the universe in his own unique way and by his own choosing.
Only the individual mind exists for perceiving the universe. Each of us would do well to remember this and respect it during our short, precious time as conscious beings.